How to Help Employees Exert Emotional Labour

The challenge that organizations
have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline
employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most
needed. Seth Godin

Now and then I come across a quote
which makes me stop and think. Here’s why this one brought the local customer
experience to mind.

Most Jamaicans who travel to the
United States are struck by how well-trained service workers are. At first
blush, it appears that they really know how to smile, be polite and seem

However, those who end up staying to
live in North America tell a different tale. They recall a discovery: five
minutes after a seemingly meaningful interaction the provider can’t remember
your face or name. It was all an act.

Where it comes from is
obvious – those who have peeked behind the scenes say it’s the result
of thorough training tightly coupled with swift, harsh consequences for
non-compliance. It gets the right behaviour, but does it produce genuine

Contrast that situation with the
experience of tourists who visit Jamaica repeatedly for several years, making
lifelong friendships which start with chance encounters on the beach, village
or bus. These extraordinary, unscripted stories end up bonding entire families
from different cultures. Sometimes, they even cross generations, in spite of
the geographic distance.

How can these two contrasting
experiences be reconciled by you, a manager who must develop staff to serve
local customers? Godin’s quote offers a few clues.

1. Faking isn’t Creating

I suspect that frontline workers in
the US have been trained to “fake human connection” on demand – to go
through the motions, following a set of actions they have memorized and
practiced. Unfortunately, they also haven’t learned to separate true emotion
from fakery.

How to get past this obstacle?

If you believe that your front-line
workers are acting the part but not actually creating authentic
experiences, they may need deeper training. Noticing real emotions in the
middle of a transaction isn’t easy, especially when the customer is upset. Most
of us can’t: it takes a kind of emotional maturity few possess.

2. Doing Feeling Work

However, when we bump into someone
who can regularly provide this experience in the worst of circumstances, we
tend to think of their emotional maturity as a rare gift or talent.
Unfortunately, this explanation puts them up on a pedestal, far beyond the
reach of the unlucky majority.

Godin implies that this thinking is

“Emotional labour” is really what’s
missing, he explains. It’s the trained effort most companies’ leaders just
can’t be bothered to develop – the expense is too high. Their lack of
care begins with haphazard hiring and continues with non-existent onboarding.
Employees who receive this basic training are left to their own
devices, never given the tools to produce emotional results. Then, when
problems occur, most managers simply blame the employee: they fail to
accept responsibility.

But Godin goes further: he hints
that many companies don’t even “permit” their front-line employees to provide emotional
labour. They actually make it hard.

Have you ever received a quiet act
of kindness from an employee who put themselves in harm’s way to make an
exception in your case? That’s someone who is working around the limits
implemented by a blind, callous leadership.

3. Identifying Moments

These subversives are not only
brave, but wise. They can tell when a human connection is most needed and act
decisively to provide it.

But they aren’t just interesting:
these moments are extraordinary opportunities to create lasting loyalty.
Perhaps they explain why these tourists return to visit their newfound “family”
in Jamaica. Their initial link was so positive, and so unexpectedly real, that
they end up feeling closer to a Jamaican front-line worker than their actual
neighbours or office colleagues.

Can workers be trained to identify
these key moments in a customer’s experience?

They can, but if your employees have
childhoods pock-marked with trauma, it’s much harder to do so. Unfortunately,
given the low pay of our service providers, many have experienced such
hardships and won’t get over them on their own.

If management steps in and provides
the counselling, training and coaching needed to move past these obstacles,
everyone benefits. The fact is, employees who are being trained to emotionally
labour on behalf of customers who need a human connection need to deal with
their own wounds first.

This puts them in the driver’s seat: able to respond to the customer without their history getting in the way. Now, they can deliberately create the kind of deep loyalty customers enjoy but rarely experience. It’s emotional labor which provides a win for all concerned.

The dilemma of the bored employee

Why is it that your employees who start out excited about
their jobs lose interest so quickly? Is it a problem with their age, a cultural

or just fate? Can their experience be enriched by savvy

The dilemma begins with most leaders who compare employees
to cars and their jobs to long-term parking spots. In other words, all they
need to do is slot people into positions and leave them. From that point on,
the person is expected to perform the role faithfully and occupy the position

Unfortunately, that‘s not how things work. As you may know,
there are a startling number of staff who merely go through the motions: “It’s
just a job.” Long gone are the challenges which kept them up at night. All
that’s left is a routine they can now do without thinking.

Predictably, they turn their attention to other life
demands. They raise children to pass exams with top grades. They sign up for
marathons. They become deacons in their churches and volunteers in community
organizations. While there’s a great deal of good they accomplish in all these
other areas, their career remains stagnant: the same job from one day to the
next. A few convince themselves that the steady salary is worth the deadening
sacrifice. Others refuse. They walk away, quitting to find a different career
or start their own company.

Meanwhile, executives in your firm probably remain clueless
about the real depth of disengagement: the high percentage who give their
work-life the bare minimum. Understanding why employees are more dissatisfied
than ever can help you produce a breakthrough culture.

The New Employee

Today’s entering staff member is often surprised at the
stale environment found inside most companies. The truth is, little has changed
over the years. People at all levels are still stuck in the
car-and-parking-spot frame of mind.

Why are they shocked? They have been raised in a world of
high engagement in which social media, entertainment and games occupy a great
deal of their personal energy. Each of these platforms is  engineered to
grab hold of a user’s attention and keep it for extended periods of time.

Creators of highly engaged online environments realize they
are in a competition with other experiences. With every bit and byte, they
intend to keep users interested and use attention as a measure of success. The
makers of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t want you to slip away.

By comparison, most jobs in the workplace seem to be
designed to lose, disrupt or even destroy attention. It’s tempting to think
this has something to do with technology: instead, it’s all about intention.

Unfortunately, there are probably few managers in your
company who see their challenge in the same way. They fail to recognize that
“experience design” is part of their job, instead pretending as if nothing has
changed over the years.

The outcome? Employees who can hardly last 15 minutes alone
or in a meeting without reflexively searching their smartphones for something

A New Challenge

Most of your fellow managers probably just shrug their
shoulders, complaining. For them, the point of engaging staff is not to
entertain them, but make them productive.

Perhaps they could adapt the mindset of game designers. One
of their leading thought leaders, Amy Jo Kim, asks: “How can we create
experiences that get better as employees become more skilled?”

In most companies, the focus has been on the opposite. HR
has been trying to keep employees’ experience the same once they reach a
certain level of skill: the old car-and-long-term-parking-lot model. The result
is boredom.

Behind this unwanted outcome is a lack of responsibility.
Most manager’s don’t believe that their job is to engineer an outstanding
experience. In their minds, work is not a place for intrinsic fulfillment or
purpose: it’s a crude exchange of money for labour.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to tackle this issue
head-on. As a new employee at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1988, I joined a
system which made room for technical employees who had no interest in becoming
supervisors. A technical ladder allowed many to be promoted and recognized without
having the burden of direct reporting relationships.

At a micro level, your company can train managers to develop
detailed ladders of skills. Imagine if, at any moment in time, your employees
could know exactly which rung they occupy. Furthermore, they would also be able
to pinpoint which skills they are developing. This way, they know what their
next personal improvement target happens to be and when it is due.

This form of career gamification can engage even long-term
staff, blocking the default – boredom – which thwarts your company’s goals.